Theatre Reviews
Photo by T. Charles Erickson courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

By Joanne Fistere

I have to admit I was skeptical about the choice of “The Lehman Trilogy” as the first show of The Rep’s 57th season, especially in the middle of a search for a new artistic director. I thought to myself “is starting off with a three and a half hour somewhat obscure drama really going to draw in audiences?” But then I began my requisite research on the show, and I became intrigued.

“The Lehman Trilogy” by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power is a British import that initially opened on Broadway in 2019 then closed due to COVID but came back in 2021 and won the 2022 Tony for Best Play among others. At the time it was one of the hottest tickets in town. It follows the lives of the three immigrant Lehman brothers, Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer from when they arrive in America beginning in 1844 through the infamous bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers Bank in 2008. Over 50 characters are depicted by three actors on a minimalist stage with no costume changes or props to speak of. There is a musician that accompanies them throughout the play on various woodwind instruments. What can make or break this play are the direction and the cast. Fortunately for The Rep audiences we are in excellent hands.

Carey Perloff beautifully directs the trio of Scott Wentworth (Henry Lehman), Joshua David Robinson (Emanuel Lehman), and Firduos Bamji (Mayer Lehman), with Joe Larocca as the intrepid and perfectly placed musician. While the story of the three Jewish brothers fleeing Bavaria is an interesting one, and certainly the rags-to-riches fable is one for the ages, what makes this production so compelling and well worth seeing is the glorious complexity of characters these actors are able to portray on so many levels. Each performer goes in and out of multiple roles seamlessly but always back to the original brother who are the story tellers from start to finish.

Sara Brown provides the perfect set that converts to all of the necessary spaces and compliments Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s projections nicely. Dede Ayitte’s costumes are flawless in their simplicity especially with the detail of cotton etched on the back of each overcoat. Mark Bennett’s music is essential to the overall cohesion of the play and adds the proper sound effects as well.

This is a ghost story in that the brothers are retelling their version and narrating it to the audience, and they play all the parts. Seldom do we hear a voice of conscience. There are questions that go unanswered regarding their relationship to slavery during their time in Montgomery, Alabama, and as cotton brokers before, during, and after the Civil War. We witness the cold-hearted calculations that keep Lehman Brothers afloat after the crash of Wall Street, even as we witness stockbrokers committing suicide. And there is no happy ending of course.

Whether it’s a story that needs to be told I don’t know. But it’s a story that is told extremely well by master craftsmen in their field. There are three acts with two intermissions, and it runs over three and half hours which can be daunting for even the most seasoned theatre goer, but I guarantee it is well worth the sitting time. An excellent choice for a season opener and I look forward to what else The Rep has in store.

“The Lehman Trilogy” at The Rep runs through September 24th. For tickets and information go The Rep website.

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